There’s an emptiness that washes over Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and it’s worse than any plague Old Testament God could muster. Within the first few minutes this emptiness starts seeping in, and it slowly builds with each scene, until the audience is drowning in the cold, emotionless abyss of a cinematic experience that feels more mechanical than heartfelt. There’s no love. There’s no hate. Even the vast, grandstanding visuals lack awe-inspiring passion, dumping scenes of births and deaths, magnificent wonders and armies of people upon us with little care, concern, or empathy. And we, the audience, are left to squirm in our seats, our eyes searching for meaning within the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, our hearts yearning for a revelation.
The tale of Moses is a tale many of us are quite familiar with. It’s been told and retold over countless adaptations, many of which have been films, live-action and animated, big and small. Ridley Scott’s adaptation is yet another re-telling, one that plots itself along the elements of the story most are familiar with. Exodus: Gods and Kings is nothing new. It’s a big budget blockbuster with sweeping panoramic shots and clever computer wizardry. The battles are brutal. The plagues are intense. The morbidity is colorful, dark, and flooded with the greatest technology Hollywood can afford.
While sometimes a pretty film, there’s little else in Exodus’ two and a half hour run time. Some of the casting choices are dubious (John Turturro as Seti?), but the biggest crime this film commits is a lack of characterization. There are no characters in Exodus; there are only cardboard cut-outs with familiar names attached to them. Each character is nothing more than a placeholder to fill a scene with, so the plot can plod along its routine trajectory. And those that do fill scenes seem dead inside. No one grows, no one changes, and no one builds any sort of meaningful relationship with anyone else. The audience needs more than the label of “Moses” slapped on a dreary, uninspired Christian Bale to make us care. Joel Edgerton (Rhamses) shaving his head and grumbling does not create an enticing villain. And what about the relationship between the two of these supposed “brothers” – Rhamses and Moses? It’s almost nonexistent. We’re told of their relationship through brief bits of dialogue, but we’re never shown anything – the audience never sees fondness or love glimmer in either one’s eyes. We just see the cold; we just see the rotating gears of the Hollywood blockbuster machine clicking away.
It’s a blasphemous offense when a studio decides to gut a revered religious tale for a quick buck. What should be a film that provides a sense of catharsis to moviegoers, an overwhelming passion to take up noble causes and battle against the odds, comes off as an attempt to dazzle us with vibrant violence and loud noises. Wherein Ridley Scott should have kept his focus on developing an interesting or sympathetic Moses, we see his focus on his special effects department’s fondness for the wholesale slaughter of digital horses. Be it by flood, mountain face, or a sea teeming with computer-generated sharks, there’s a noticeable amount of horse-killing. It feels almost gleeful, a hand-over-mouth “tee hee” added during the editing process, and it’s one of the few moments of “entertainment” we’re offered.
The many plagues of God are paid the same careful attention to detail. It’s as if the whole movie’s core revolves around how “cool” the special effects team could make the wrath of God, and admittedly, the wrath of God is beautifully horrific. Whoever digitized an army of crocodiles and sent them on a killing spree, devouring fishermen left and right, earned his or her paycheck. And each plague thereafter was even more wretchedly terrible than the last. There’s so much cruelty and pain, it’s hard to look away, and it’s in these moments we stop checking our watches.
But by the end of the film, this is all we’re left with – pain and emptiness. Moses and Rhamses once again yawn poetic verses of dialogue at each other, sharing an uninspired apathy we’re all too familiar with by now and a buyer’s remorse over what Exodus is really about: a swindle. A hoodwink. Fox chief Rupert Murdoch’s great sting. His sword and sandal assault and theft operation. The real religious revelation is the mad dash for our wallets by giving us something that grandparents will gleefully drag their grandchildren to after Sunday’s sermon.
Ultimately, it’s a pity that a director as great as Ridley Scott gave into temptation and was subsequently dragged through the nine circles of hell with us. He’s too good for this.